From the grey drizzly streets of postwar London to the red clay roads and grand vistas of what is now Botswana, then Bechuanaland, the poorest country in Africa, this film blends an against-the-odds love story with real colonial politics. It’s the true story (barring a little tweaking) of the love affair and marriage of the young King of Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), in England to study law,and Englishwoman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), at a time before even the Windrush arrivals when mixed marriage in the UK was verging on the scandalous. Black faces were not often seen here, nor, more importantly for the story perhaps, were white wives seen with black husbands in Africa, particularly when that African was king of his country. Taking his bride back to the villages of his homeland where he is about to take up the reins of kingship, Seretse incurs all-out opposition from his uncle, the regent, resulting in a dangerous split among the population.
What’s more, Westminster doesn’t like it. Jack Davenport (clearly the new Tim Piggott Smith) excels as the Colonial Office Bastard, the ‘what is that bad smell?’ sneer ever-present when spelling out the impossible-to-countenance fallout of such a marriage and such a queen. Enforced exile for the new king follows, when the – ouch – Labour government turns a blind eye to morality, with a South Africa freshly decked out in its new Apartheid clothes needing to be kept sweet (‘It’s the uranium, you see’). But the Tories, voted in at the 1951 election, prove even more deplorable when Churchill, having fought the election declaring he will end the exile, totally reneges on his promise. Remind you of anything? Plus ça change. At least the now opposition has young Tony Benn to set things aright.
Oyelowo and Pike have excellent chemistry, making their emotional journey affectingly powerful, as they accept that their personal lives are less important than the future of their country. And the well-crafted telling of the wider, quite complicated, story is a pleasure, and seems to keep the spirit of the real happenings, despite maybe downplaying the extent of the unrest caused in Bechuanaland by Seretse’s split with tradition. It’s straightforwardly, plainly made, with no cinematic tricks, but packs a punch through its unknown and, yes, inspiring tale.
Seen at Empire Cinema Newcastle, December